Dogs, Cows and Kids …

In every company, product managers have more things to do than you have time for. So how do you decide which products to fund? which projects to work on? and more importantly what NOT to work on? After all, if you have more things to do than you have time for, there is nothing worse than working on the wrong stuff. Marty Cagan of Silicon Valley Product Group says – “….lose your dogs and milk your cows, and you should have significantly more resources with which to feed your kids.”

Marty in his latest blog post “Dogs, cows and kids” talks about how to identify what to ride to the sunset, what to milk and what to focus energy on. It is a great read.

Secrets of success in 8 words and 3 minutes

Wondering about how to be successful – watch this video by Richard St. John delivered at Ted 2007.

Need a head and a date

As product managers, we have to work with a lot of departments – engineering, qa, order admin, finance, shipping etc as part of creating the product and then putting that product into the market.

Doing all of this, involves choreographing and managing a lot of activities, so that the final dance that results meets the customer expectations.

Here is a common answer I get when I ask people to commit to a date when a task assigned to them will be completed by them – “I am not sure, I have a lot on my plate”. Great, you think I don’t have anything else to do?

Don’t accept this answer but counter it with the following – “OK, I understand you are very busy and you may need to get more information before you can commit to a completion date. But can you give me  a date when you will get back to me with a firm completion date?” This way, you are asking them to commit to a date to a date. To this, people will usually give you an answer.

Then when you end the meeting minutes, assign the action item to the person to get back to you with a completion date. Hold them accountable to the entire team and not just to you. Yes, unexpected things will come up, they always do, but you cannot run a business without a head and a date for each task.

Google Chrome vs. Cuil – Product Management Case Studies?

By now, many of you are well aware of two new products that came out this summer (and if you have not, you were probably enjoying the summer a lot more than I was) – a new browser from Google called Google Chrome and a new search engine from a startup called Cuil

I was excited by both of these products and decided to try both of them. I had trouble getting to the Chrome download server but I waited patiently to get to it the next day. I found both the products to be buggy and gave up on Cuil and have never been back to it even once. I found Google Chrome to be buggy as well and uninstalled it because it did not work with my anti-virus software. So the initial product usage experience was the same, but there is one big difference.

I have talked positively about Google Chrome to a lot of people and given it glowing reviews – I have told them it was buggy, how I had to uninstall it and how I expect that these issues will be fixed. I have not talked to as many people about Cuil and to those who I have talked to, I have ridiculed it. I talked about what a joke it was and why I even needed another search engine when Google works so well.

So why am I spreading the positive word about Google Chrome though my first taste of it left lot to be desired? Interesting, isn’t it. Here is my analysis.

What is wrong with Cuil?

Very simple. It does not solve a problem I have. OK, you could say that you index more pages than Google but to me as a user, anything past 20-30 search results is Siberia. So the only yardstick is “Are the first 20-30 results better than what I get on Google” – No. So why do I care. So where is the product differentiation? No reason to switch from the incumbent vendor I use.

What is right with Google Chrome?

  1. Yes, the product is buggy (and aptly called Beta), but I buy into their vision. They have designed the web browser from the groundup to support web apps – at least that is what they claim. I buy into this vision. It does not solve my browsing problems today, but I know web apps are the future. So they are ahead of the game – they are looking out into the future for me.
  2. They released it in a very novel way – using the comic book concept. Very novel, again out of the box thinking.
  3. A company I respect tremendously for past innovations and I use their innovative tools everyday. If they have not got it right yet, I have the confidence that they will. Read “incumbent/entrenched vendors are always at an advantage”.
  4. When I had the issue with anti-virus software, they already knew about it and said on the forums that they were working on a solution – they were listening – they are on top of their game.
  5. They made it open source – they contributed their code base to the software community – I already know about the success of Firefox – they did not beat their chests creating another proprietary product, they are letting everyone use their innovations.

Product Management Lessons:

  1. Solve a real problem customers have (or will have soon)
  2. Incumbent vendors have a big advantage – to make users switch to your product, it needs to absolutely rock. If you are just a “wannabe” or if your differentiation is some metric which no one cares about, users will not switch.
  3. Past vendor success generates respect. Once you gain that respect, you will get a longer leash from your users (same applies to product managers too).

Companies should not be “customer” focused

Yes, companies should not be “customer” focused first, I strongly challenge them to be “employee” focused instead and then the customer focus will come.

I have been a great proponent of being customer driven, listening to customer’s unmet needs and then creating products that serve those needs. But when it comes to focus for companies, I would be “employee” focused first. Why? Because if you hire the right employees, treat them right, give them the authority and responsibility to do the right thing for the customers, the customer focus will come automatically. The vice versa does not work.

The example I always use when I make this point is that of airlines. They all tout how they care about their customers and guess what – when I get on a plane I meet flight attendants who care less about the customers – why? they are not happy, they are probably worried about making their ends meet because their compensations are being squeezed by the airlines every time they get a chance – all in the name of cost cutting. So do I expect these employees to serve their customers very well so that the airlines can tout great customer service? These days they are even asked to bring their own food and drink on board. Imagine this – what would four to six extra lunch boxes and sodas/water cost to make sure that these flight attendants (whose primary job is to serve and ensure the safety of the passengers) stay hydrated and not hungry? All of this when I have not seen any major cuts in the airline executive compensations that makes these executives start worrying about how they will pay their bills. Who would you rather see motivated to turn the airline around – the executives or the flight attendants and the pilots in whose hands your life depends when you are flying?

Contrast that with companies such as Ritz and Nordstrom – do you think these companies have such high customer ratings by sheer luck – no – they focus on making sure they hire the right employees, develop them, make sure that they are well treated and empowered to make their customers happy. After all, hiring decisions better be the most important decisions you make in your company. Folks, It is all about relationships with people and not products.

How a great asset becomes your greatest liability

Thank you Manny Ramirez for the last 7 years – but Red Sox nation will be just fine without you. When you become more than the team, it is time for you to move on.  You were a great asset but there is a point a great asset becomes a liability – you crossed the line this year.

Our sports teams have shining examples of superstars (Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Kevin Garnett,  Paul Pierce, Ray Allen) who recognize the value of putting the team first and delivering the goods. You also had great teammates like David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Kevin Millar who played their hearts out, but with you it was all about you. You were making more money that you could possibly spend in your lifetime, but all you could do is whine and cry like a baby!! I enjoyed all of your home runs like every other Red Sox fan did. But enough is enough, we will still love our Red Sox as much as we all do without you.

So have fun, pee in a cup behind the Dodgers score board, make cell phone calls while you are in the left field, party with Scott Boras, get more rich, report late into training camp, visit the car auction in NY, do whatever, we really don’t care – you are now Torre’s problem – now he can lose whatever hair he has left dealing with you.  We are quite happy here in Boston that the cancer in the clubhouse has been cured once and for all. We may not win it all this year, but the concept of the team and integrity of the game will survive.

Do slides for webinars need to be different?

Recently, I attended a webinar. The slides were full of text and the presenter read word by word – you very well know what I said – Text on a Powerpoint slide is your greatest competition. When I gave feedback about this to the presenter via email, the response from him indicated to me that he decided to put all the text on his slides because it was a webinar.

So this brings up the interesting question – do slides need to be different for a webinar than those used for live presentations? No, absolutely not in my opinion. To me a webinar is no different than a live presentation at a conference where there is an overflow room. Imagine that you are giving a talk at a conference that has drawn a large audience that will not fit in the original room reserved for your talk. So the organizers open up another room where the audience can hear you, can see your slides on a projection screen, but cannot see you. Would you change your presentation style and your slides because you cannot see the people in the overflow conference room? No. Webinars should be treated the same way.

In fact, I will argue that webinars require even more presentation skills because you want the audience to listen to you while they have a lot of distraction compared to when you are presenting live. So if all you are going to do is put text and then read off the slide, they will read the slides ahead of you as you flip them and not pay any attention to your message.

While I am on this topic – here is another common mistake I have seen many presenters make including this webinar presenter. I signed up for the webinar to get knowledge about a topic that was interesting to me. The presenter started with introduction about who he is, what his company does and what products they make – this is not what I wanted to hear right off the bat. I wanted to hear about the topic that I signed up for. Tell me that first, satiate my hunger for it and then give me the pitch about you, your company and your products. Towards the end, you have gained more permission from the attendees to tell them about you and they are more apt to listen because you educated them first. It is all about the audience, folks. Don’t put the cart before the horse!

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Eight traits of good hiring managers

Good managers mostly hire good people and sometimes hire the wrong people whereas bad managers always hire the wrong people. This is the conclusion I have come to in my 15 year career. What do I define as a bad hiring manager? – one who does not have good managerial skills, feels insecure and hence tends to hire someone worse than him/her because they feel threatened if their hires are better/smarter than them. I have seen at least four such managers in my career based on the quality and hence the resulting performance of their hires.

So what are the traits of good managers:

1) They hire people smarter than them: The whole purpose of hiring people is to get work done. Good managers don’t want to lose sleep over the performance of their reports. They want people who can work with minimal direction, whose work will reflect their pride, who will go the extra mile to get the job done.They do not micro manage, they allow you to put your artistic touch to your work as long as you meet the business goals. They realize that ownership brings the best out of good people.

2) Their success is defined by the team’s success: They are fully aware that their success is determined by their team’s success. They work to remove the hurdles limiting their team and to ensure that the team is marching forward.

3) They identify and credit their team members in public for job well done: They don’t take any credit for the work done – they identify in public the people who toiled to get the job done. They relish their team’s success. They make sure that their team members get the visibility in front of their superiors or executive management. You will see them use “we” more than they would use “I”.

4) They praise in public and advise in private: People need constant encouragement and direction when things go wrong. Managers work with team members privately to reflect on mistakes and work out an action plan to fix it going forward. They use the feather to slap one’s hand and never the hammer unless they are forced to. They give immediate feedback good or bad so that successes get repeated and mistakes get corrected.

5) They train their replacements: Good managers want to move their career forward. They realize that they cannot do this until they groom someone to eventually replace them in the current job. They realize that they owe it to their current employer if they choose to leave the company.

6) They never treat all of their direct reports the same but fairly: They realize that people are different and hence one cannot treat everyone the same. Some need more assistance than others. It is more important that they are fair and transparent in the decisions they make. They set goals for their team members and reward good performance and more importantly penalize bad performance. The process is transparent and the team members don’t hold any ill will on decisions made.

7) They treat their direct reports as human beings: After all, it is not just all work. They encourage their reports to take time off to recharge themselves. They remind them to get a life outside work. In essence, they care about their team member’s well being because it directly impacts your productivity at work.

8. They cut their losses when they make hiring mistakes: When they make those bad hiring decisions, they cut their losses when it is clear that things will not work out in spite of their best efforts. They are not afraid to admit their hiring mistakes. This sends message to the rest of the team that good performance is valued and everyone is expected to equally share the workload.

So how do you find out during the hiring process if you will be working for a good manager or a total jerk? It is tough because it is easy to hide but you may be able to get some early warning signals. Here are eight ways you could possibly find out:

1) Ask the hiring manager directly about their management style.

2) Ask them about some of the successes of their team – see if it is all “I did this, I did this” and not “we did this” – do they name people on their team while they talk about the successes?

3) Ask others who you would be interviewing with (in an indirect way) including those who would be your peers about the manager’s management style. If someone takes issue with this, it may not be a good place to work after all.

4) They let you ask questions during the interview that let you get a better understanding about the job and about their management style.

5) How much do they grill you to make sure you are the right person for the job? Good managers want to make sure you indeed have the “smarts” or “skills” that you claim in your resume.

6) How well do they talk about the company’s success and work that needs to be done?

7) How long is the interview process? In good companies, interviews are likely to be multiple rounds because the company cares a whole lot about their hiring process.

8. Are they excited when they talk about what the company is doing and what the team is accomplishing?

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Has definition of leadership changed?

Has definition of leadership changed over the years – over the century? Countless books have been written on the concept of leadership – Amazon returns 263,761 results when you search for leadership – The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader, 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, leadership and the one minute manager and then another 263,718 more entries.

But who exactly is a leader? Have the skills needed by a leader changed over the years, over decades, over centuries? Tom Peters says it has not – his 4 minute video on this is worth watching (BTW, do you see a single Powerpoint slide in this video?). And I have to agree with Tom.

Good Product Managers exhibit strong leadership skills because they lead by influence and make their team members collectively achieve more than what each of them thought was possible.

Love the customers who hate you

I have been a big proponent of online communities and social media – I have written at least two blog posts on this. So when the latest Business Week arrived with the main section titled “Consumer vigilantes” I could not put it down. The most interesting article among many dealing with social media was titled Love the customers who hate you. This is a must read. The net net of the article is captured in “…… Now don’t get mad at these people. Instead, help them get even with you. These angry customers are doing you a great favor. They care enough about your product or service to tell you exactly what went wrong. Other customers may just desert you and head to the competition. But these are telling you what to fix. Listen to them. Help them. Respond to them. Ask their advice—and they’ll give it to you.” – Enjoy reading.

How best to ask for resources?

Imagine that you have to make a business case to your upper management for a product/project you want to get funded. There are two ways a product manager can ask for this:

1) I need $$$$$ and XXXXX number of people to do this project?

2) I have this idea that I have vetted with customers and prospects, here is the total size of the market, this will help us move the business forward, this would establish us as a market/thought leader, here is potential revenues we could bring in, what do you think and do you agree we need to do it?

Which do you think is going to be received well? Of course answer 2 (provided you have done enough research). The obvious question that will be asked would be – what would it take? And the answer is 1). But going in there with guns loaded just with 1) is not going to get anywhere.

The other benefit with 2), is you are asking for input whether it is the right thing to do – you are engaging your management to help you make the decision. Once you have the buy in that the idea/product is worth doing, they will open up for your justification for resources. But the common mistake made by product managers is doing 1) with no luck.

State of You?

As a product manager, you are quite busy doing product roadmaps, gathering requirements, working with cross functional teams, getting the messaging right,writing positioning statements etc. You are busy trying to do all the work with less time and resources available at your disposal. In the midst of this chaotic professional life, have you taken the time to evaluate how well you are doing growing your career, building value for yourselves such that your market value is increasing? Yes, the first and foremost thing we should focus on is building value to our employers (that is what we get paid for), but it is also important that you spend time adding value to yourselves. After all, I doubt that most of us want to do the same thing and work for the same employer for the rest of our working lives .

One technique that is useful is creating an honest assessment of the one product you are in full control of – YOU!!. The way I did it the other day was to create a list of all the skills an ideal product manager should have (if you don’t know the full list, read a bunch of job descriptions for product managers in your industry and look at the requirements or skills being asked for and then create the list) and then made a honest assessment of where I currently stood on a scale of High, Medium and Low (High = strong, Low = weak). I also did an assessment of what my personal interest is for each of these skills. For example, as a product manager, one is required to help legal with contracts – I consider this as a necessary evil that I as a product manager has to live with, but not something I want to get very good at. On the other hand, product positioning or market sizing is something I have great interest in and should have a strong skill.

Once you do this exercise, your strengths (High skill set, high interest) and weaknesses (low skill set, high interest) is going to stare at you. Now you need to create a roadmap on how you are going to work on your weaknesses and figure out what projects you may want to take on (read “initiative”) at your current employer to add more value to your employer and yourselves.

I have done mine and found this very useful and I intend to use this once a year to evaluate my progress and analyze the State of “Me” going forward. The above technique can be used by anyone – engineers, scientists, doctors etc. and not just product managers.

What can we learn from the New England Patriots?

Over the last week, I cannot tell you how embarassed I have been to say that I am a New England Patriots fan? I have loved the Patriots since I moved to Boston in 1996. Them going to the Super Bowl my very first year here in Boston helped of course (though they did not win it all that year). Then came the 2001, 2003 and 2005 seasons where they won it all. The last couple of years were heart breaking, but there was something about this team that made it everyone’s envy. The attention to every detail, the team camaraderie and the strong work ethic of  coach Bill Belichick who was called a genius by everyone. Then all of this fell right apart this last week with what has now become famous “videogate”, “spygate”, “cameragate” ….

All the respect I had for coach Belichick went right out of the window when I first heard about the spying episode. I was mad not just because he cheated but because I never understood why he had to do it. Here was a team that was retooled with some of the best offensive weapons and favored heavily to win it all again this year. Why would the so called genius, such a great leader who could bring out the best out of his players, falter by making such a stupid decision to stoop so low. I even thought of not watching last night’s game against the Chargers, but then it is difficult to keep me away from a football game.

What transpired last night completely surprised me . The team rallied around their coach in what I consider to be one of the best Patriots game I have watched in the last 11 years. Both the offense and defense had an air around them that they had something to prove. They brought their best game all for their wounded coach and leader. The San Diego Chargers unfortunately did not stand a chance right from the word go. At the end of the game, they even gave Belichick the game ball to express their support.

This is to me is what great teams are made of. I still do not approve of Belichick’s unethical ways and I don’t think I ever will. But as a product manager, I am very impressed how the team rallied around their wounded leader to pick him up when he was down. Maybe that is what true teams are made of. It would have been very easy for the team to throw stones at their own glasshouse, but no – what they did last night is probably what sets the Patriots apart from the rest of the league.

After all, it is what it is. They moved on and continued doing what they do best – winning football games.